Saturday, March 10, 2012
Arizona saves best for almost last
By T.J. Berka
LOS ANGELES -- After having come within two points of making the Final Four a year ago, Arizona wasn't going to allow its NCAA tournament hopes to fade away at halftime of the Pac-12 tournament semifinals on Friday at Staples Center.
So despite only hitting one field goal in the final 7:56 of the first half and going into halftime down seven points to No. 9-seeded Oregon State, Arizona knew that its tourney chances weren't remotely close to being done.
“Sometimes as a coach you have a feel that your guys have been through it before, and it's somewhat understated how many postseason games we played in a year ago,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “When you're at halftime and you're playing in these elimination games, it certainly helps to have a team of individual players that have done that and been there before.”
That experience was evident in the second half, as No. 4-seeded Arizona buckled down on defense, outscoring the Beavers by 18 points in the second half to roll to a 72-61 victory and a berth in the Pac-12 championship game on Saturday.
After allowing the Beavers (19-14) to shoot 50 percent in the first half, Arizona (23-10) locked down on defense, holding Oregon State to 27.3 percent shooting to turn a 34-27 disadvantage into another step toward its 26th NCAA tournament appearance in 27 seasons. But even though the entire 20 minutes was a clinic, Miller said he was especially impressed by the way his team played in the first four minutes of the second half.
Jesse Perry, left, and Kyle Fogg combined for 27 points in the second half of Arizona's comeback.
“That four to eight minutes in the second half is some of the best basketball that we played this year,” Miller said. “It would have been easy to go in at halftime and say 'It just doesn't feel right,' but we did just the opposite.”
Seniors Kyle Fogg and Jesse Perry were key cogs in Arizona's second-half push, as Fogg scored 17 of his game-high 22 points in the second half while Perry scored 10 points and pulled down 7 rebounds after halftime, giving him a double-double of 16 points and 11 rebounds for the game.
“He made some big shots,” Miller said of Fogg. “It wasn't an easy 22. He made several plays when it counted the most -- made a lot of plays at the end of the [shot] clock. He's really been doing that, and he had a great game today.”
The entire Wildcats team had a great second half on defense, holding Oregon State to zero field goals and only one point for 6 minutes, 16 seconds, from the 17:48 mark to 11:32 of the second half. Oregon State's only point during that stretch came on a free throw by Jared Cunningham. Cunningham was a symbol of Oregon State's second-half frustration, scoring only 3 points on 1-of-8 shooting in the second half after going off for 11 in the first 20 minutes.
While Oregon State was scuffling, Arizona was making big shots. The biggest of Arizona's 20-3 run to open the second half might have come at the 16:21 mark, when senior guard Brendon Lavender drained a 3-pointer at the top of the key to tie the game at 36-36.
“When Brendon hit that shot, I could sense that we were ready to get it going,” Fogg said. “It seemed to take a little out of them too. It's tough playing three games in three days like they did and it started to catch up to them.”
Oregon State coach Craig Robinson admitted that the Beavers had lost their legs in the second half, as the combination of playing two intense games prior to Friday and the Beavers' frenetic style took its toll.
“I thought we simply ran out of gas,” Robinson said. “We played so hard and so fast for three days that we didn't have anything left in the tank after they made their run at us. With the way we play, I thought it took its toll.”
But Arizona had just as much to do with Oregon State's fatigue than any sort of lag the Beavers felt. Freshman guard Nick Johnson, who put Arizona up for good at 38-36 with 15:59 left on a driving layup, was one player who Miller lavishly praised.
“With Nick, it's not what shows up on the stat sheet,” Miller said. “It's just that he's a playmaker. And he made plays tonight.”
The Wildcats hope that Johnson, as well as the rest of the crew, continue to make plays in Saturday night's Pac-12 championship game and take any question about their tournament status out of the selection committee's hands.